The Supreme Court, in an urgent interim order on September 6, protected Editors Guild of India (EGI) president and three senior journalists from arrest by the Manipur Police for their ground report concluding “bias” on the part of the local media in reporting the ethnic clashes.
A three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud listed the case for a detailed hearing on September 11 and directed the Manipur Police not to take any coercive actions against them in the interregnum.
“Notice. Keep it on Monday... Till the next date of listing, no coercive action will be taken in connection with the FIRs,” Chief Justice Chandrachud dictated in the short interim order.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, who made an urgent oral mentioning before the Chief Justice’s Bench on behalf of the EGI, said they knew that at least two FIRs were registered by the Manipur Police after the report was released on September 2.
The FIRs have accused EGI president Seema Mustafa, Sanjay Kapoor, Seema Guha and Bharat Bhushan of offences under several provisions of the Indian Penal Code, including promoting enmity between different groups. The complaints, based on which the FIRs were registered, accused the EGI report of “incorrect and false statements”.
Mr. Divan said the report was prepared by the fact-finding team after extensive travelling and interviews with victims and eyewitnesses between August 7 and 10. An error which crept into the report was corrected promptly, the senior lawyer said.
He said the EGI had serious apprehensions about the right to free speech and personal liberty of the journalists after hearing Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh’s statements in a press conference following the release of the report.
“The Chief Minister said in a press conference he had personally held that the EGI was stoking passions and making provocative statements... Consider the particular dimensions now with the Chief Minister saying this...” Mr. Divan submitted.
Advocate Kanu Agrawal, for Manipur, requested the Bench to schedule the case on Monday, or, in the alternative, direct the petitioners to approach the Manipur High Court for relief strictly on the merits of the case.
Though the Chief Justice initially toyed with the idea of giving a four-week protection to the EGI journalists, the court finally settled on September 11.
Earlier in the day, the Chief Justice had asked why the journalists had directly moved the Supreme Court in a writ petition without first approaching the High Court.
“You came without going to the High Court,” Chief Justice Chandrachud had asked Mr. Divan in the morning.
But after a brief discussion with Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, Chief Justice Chandrachud had told Mr. Divan to get the case papers ready. The court finally took up the petition at the end of the board just before rising for the day.
The report spoke about the deep ethnic divide in the media during the violence.
“During the ethnic violence, journalists of Manipur wrote one-sided reports. In normal circumstances, they would be cross-checked and monitored by their editors or chiefs of bureaus from the local administration, police and security forces. However, this was not possible during the conflict,” the report had said.